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The Student News Site of Clayton High School.

The Globe

The Student News Site of Clayton High School.

The Globe

Magistra Skinner’s Final Chapter

A perfect ending to a classical career
Lauren Trodus
Dr. Pamela Skinner reviews new verb conjugations for Latin II students.

Students traverse through the first floor’s halls daily and eventually reach the Latin classroom, Room 134. From there, Pamela Skinner teaches three of the five Latin courses, where she shapes students’ knowledge of Latin and the anthropology of Rome.

She previously taught at Washington University for five years, and her teaching for a PhD program at the University of Iowa played a large part in her 25-year career.

Skinner, referred to by her students as “Magistra Skinner” or Master Skinner, initially planned to pursue chemistry and biology, eventually working towards the pharmaceutical field. However, she read ancient Roman classics between her labs and felt connected to the writers’ modes of expression and thoughts. Later, her friends recommended she pursue the classics if she felt that STEM would not be as exciting.

“The lightning bolt from Zeus did it. There’s something about the fact that these were dead languages that attracted me, the reach to antiquity, the way they connect you back 2,000 or more years to people who are living,” Skinner said.

At the admissions office at the University of Montana, where she was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry, she switched her major and transitioned to the classics.

I was sitting in the admissions office. I looked at [the admissions officer] and said, out of the blue, ‘I do not want to be a pharmacist. Do you have Latin here?’

— Pamela Skinner

“I was sitting in the admissions office. I looked at [the admissions officer] and said, out of the blue, ‘I do not want to be a pharmacist. Do you have Latin here?’” Skinner said. “He blinked a couple of times and said, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, I’ll send you over to talk to one of the professors.’ I never really looked back.”

While studying at the University of Iowa, she taught as part of her doctorate program, where she then finished a dissertation on medieval manuscripts. Skinner eventually received a notice that Washington University needed a new classics substitute professor. However, the constant effort to write and publish was fatiguing and boring to Skinner.

“I had the background to do it; I had the PhD, but I’m just not that interested in doing research, with the push that you have to publish constantly,” Skinner said. “You find something new to say that nobody ever said about this literature from 2000 years ago, do that three times a year for the rest of your life and publish it. People are finding interesting, new ways to look at ancient texts, but I just liked being in the classroom.”

Skinner gradually adjusted her approach to teaching away from a college level, which included altering the course that emphasized a firm understanding of the fundamental concepts of Latin.

“I have changed so much in the last 17 years. The way I approach the language, the way I think about it even, but especially the way I teach,” Skinner said. “The environment in a high school classroom is so different that we needed to do different kinds of work.”

However, the curiosity and focus on learning in different ways encourages Skinner.

“There is nothing more fun, interesting and exciting than working with a group of students,” Skinner said. “Introducing them to something new for the first time and having everybody work together, that whole collaboration, where everybody’s paying attention, everybody’s engaged. There’s nothing better in the world.”

Skinner hopes to have a long-term impact on her students’ knowledge and understanding, which will eventually grow into passion.

“[Past] students [have] email[ed] saying, ‘I don’t know if you would know, but I’ve decided to major in Classics in college,’ or ‘I’m on an archaeological dig in Italy,’” Skinner said.

Skinner’s realization that she fills gaps in students’ knowledge validates her teaching, contrasting with her previous experience teaching college students.

[High school] students are such interesting people. When they feel comfortable in the classroom and express their questions and noticings, I love watching them.

— Pamela Skinner

“[High school] students are such interesting people. When they feel comfortable in the classroom and express their questions and noticings, I love watching them,” Skinner said. “They’re genuinely nice students. It’s so much fun to work with them. I love seeing ‘Aha’ moments like, ‘Oh wow, is that what that means?’According to 2022 alumnus Miguel Buitrago, he was that student on countless occasions. Buitrago started taking Latin in seventh grade out of a general interest in history, knowing that the language is often used in law.

In 2023, Dr. Pamela Skinner received the Bill Mendelsohn Award for Excellence in Teaching. One student noted that she models the concept of a lifelong learner by actively engaging in lectures at Washington University and maintaining an over 1300-day Duolingo streak at the highest level.

When Buitrago first had Skinner as a teacher, starting in his freshman year Latin II class, Skinner expected the best from him and his classmates with the knowledge of basic concepts such as noun declensions.

“[Skinner] was very demanding and had high expectations of students, but it was great because she was also a kind person,” Buitrago said. “It was a lot of fun to be in her class because she cared about you.”

According to Buitrago, Skinner diverges from conventional teaching styles, pushes her class to have hands-on experience with Latin and encourages them to find patterns and meaning in the texts.

“Magistra would sometimes throw us in the deep end in a good way, [saying], ‘You guys are going to read Ovid, or you guys are going to read Caesar,’” Buitrago said. “She would help us with vocabulary, but she wanted to see us struggle with hard things in a good way. I think that was unique to her.”

Buitrago now studies linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where much of what he learned from Skinner applies to his field, such as the word structures she taught.

“Most visibly, grammatical case, where Latin has a pretty big system for cases that’s honestly quite simple compared to some other languages,” Buitrago said. “Coming into linguistics, knowing what a case system looks like, was a huge advantage because case is actually a pretty big topic of theoretical linguistics nowadays.”

Initially, Buitrago’s native Spanish language influenced his opinion of Latin as easy to understand since much of Spanish’s vocabulary and grammar derives from Latin. However, he started understanding and appreciating Latin’s complexities under Skinner.

“The farther I was in Latin, the more I appreciated [the language] and the parts,” Buitrago said. “When you first take [Latin courses], they emphasize that it’s very systematic, almost kind of regular, but the farther you get, you realize, ‘Oh, Latin has lots of irregular, unique things.”

Buitrago highlighted Skinner’s innovative approach to teaching and prized having her classes as not just learning but enlightening.

“Lots of Latin education is prescriptive, so they emphasize memorization, reading and grammar. Lots of Latin education has overtones of how it’s superior,” Buitrago said. “But not at all the way Magistra taught it. Magistra taught it as just a language that’s cool, and she didn’t have [those] overtones. For example, she always emphasized spoken language to understand texts.”

Buitrago found the pronunciation and general sounds of the words unique, which provided extra insight into how one should interpret Latin texts.

“You can tell if you read versions of Latin; they’re often clunky. But she was like, ‘You should also be able to have an understanding,” Buitrago said. “Glossing over the text, reading it, understanding what it means and every word when you read, so reading the text instead of translating it word by word.”

Skinner remains not only a memorable and effective teacher but also an uplifting person. For Buitrago, in particular, Skinner always assisted him in managing matters outside of class, such as the Linguistics Club. Buitrago established the club and made it focused on puzzles, usually consisting of deciphering or translating different languages from around the world.

“[Skinner] had a really good work ethic,” Buitrago said. “I was very busy [senior year second] semester, so I would forget to prepare things for Linguistics Club. But Magistra would always have something, and she didn’t have to. She put her all into it.”

To this day, Buitrago applies what he learned not only in the college setting but also in everyday life.

“I can still look at an inscription and make out what it’s saying, and all the declensions I learned to remember, especially in museums,” Buitrago said.

Dr. Pamela Skinner helps two students with a translation worksheet. (Lauren Trodus)

Skinner focused on allowing students to immerse themselves into the language in class rather than only relying on worksheets, which students like Buitrago remember fondly.

“Memorizing the endings is the bricks you use to build the wall of your understanding. Without that, you can’t read the language, but that’s not the interesting part,” Skinner said. “I try to let people use their [declension and conjugation] charts if they have to, knowing that with repetition, enough of that’s going to get in their head. They’re going to be okay as they move forward. The really interesting thing is figuring out the interconnectedness of things.”

Junior Nate Brown had Skinner as a teacher for the Latin I and II courses and only started taking Latin as a language in his freshman year. Despite only having Skinner as a teacher for two years, she impacted Brown’s perception of Latin and languages.

[Skinner] has a mastery of the material beyond what she teaches that a lot of teachers may have

— Nate Brown, junior

“[Skinner] is an expert. I’m not saying that other teachers don’t know what they’re talking about, but she has a mastery of the material beyond what she teaches that a lot of teachers may have,” Brown said. “She had a passion for the material that came through, and it made the class more interesting.”

Brown has also participated in the Linguistics Club, frequently solving language puzzles in her classroom.

“I take a more methodical approach to language now. Certainly, there is still a lot of intuition about it, but perhaps less,” Brown said. “Were it not for her, I may not take [an] interest in the language, but I do.”

Additionally, Skinner’s expectations for her students that value engagement over conventional rote learning motivates students like Brown in approaching academics.

“[Skinner] has helped me become a harder worker, and as far as what makes a good teacher, I think that part of it [comes from] a strong personality,” Brown said.

Skinner hopes the countless students she has inspired will be her legacy.

“That’s all very important to me. I try to help students not just learn Latin and about the ancient world but grow as people and grow as collaborators,” Skinner said. “ If in five years the new Latin teacher is so amazing and wonderful that nobody remembers my name, that’s okay too.”

Skinner may not have expected her future career as a teacher while studying in college, but after years of instruction, she considers it vital.

“So long as I fulfill my role while I was here, that’s been fulfilling enough for me,” Skinner said.

When it comes to her future in retirement, Skinner is still considering what to do but hopes that it ultimately leads to what she has consistently accomplished: teaching, helping others in the ancient world and Latin.

I’m trusting that another path is going to open up, and it’ll be good. I can’t imagine not sharing Latin with someone. I hope to probably take on teaching part-time somewhere in a different circumstance, private lessons, or tutoring at the library.

— Pamela Skinner

“I’m starting to worry that I don’t have any plans, but the truth is I’ve made no plans, and it’s freeing,” Skinner said. “I’m trusting that another path is going to open up, and it’ll be good. I can’t imagine not sharing Latin with someone. I hope to probably take on teaching part-time somewhere in a different circumstance, private lessons, or tutoring at the library. I can’t imagine not teaching in some capacity, just not in this big formal way.”

Skinner’s advice to future or current Latin students, as well as any new Latin teachers, is to always seek knowledge and embrace it.

“We should learn something every day, and I’d say that both for the teacher and the students [that] every day, you should be trying to learn something new or get better,” Skinner said.

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